No Man’s Land
A Critical Review
The Vietnamese have suffered through many wars and have been no stranger to suppression by governing bodies. The foreground to most conversations relating to Vietnam brings about the Vietnam War and the communist regimes. Communism set roots in Vietnam as early as 1950’s and soon after North and South Vietnam were at war. (Vietnam profile, 2012) By 1975 North Vietnam had infiltrated the South and gained control over Vietnam as a whole. Throughout these years the people of Vietnam suffered tremendously. The war ravaged the country as a whole and what was left was a shattered infrastructure, and a group of people who were struck by poverty. This critical review covers one of those controversial books “No Man’s Land” Within the review I compare themes created by the author Duong Thu Huong and how they reflect to the society of Vietnam, post-Vietnam war.
“No Man’s Land” was written in 2005 and portrays many of the similar themes that have been apparent within the writings of Duong Thu Huong. She puts less emphasis on political grounds and more emphasis on the social aspect of those living in the post-war era of Vietnam. Some of the themes Duong writes around create and develop vivid characters whose lives portray those living in this post- war era. Classism and hero worship, religion and societal obligations, sacrifice, escape, food, and poverty all run rampant in this Novel. The plot of “No Man’s Land” surrounds Mien a married woman whose husband returns home from the war after 14 years. Mien now remarried is faced with the decision as to either stay with her husband or return to her 1st husband.
Within the first few chapters of the novel one becomes familiar with a bit of classism and hero worship within Vietnam. The classism hierarchy resembles that of an upper and lower class. And also puts returning war vets in a class of their own. Miens second husband Hoan is a rich business man who works in the city. Her first husband Bon left for war at 17. He is poor and has nothing to offer Mien besides a life of poverty within the Mountain Hamlet in which they live. When Bon first returns home all the townspeople gather and voice their opinion towards Mien they state “So, now do you understand where your duty lies? Or has luxury and good fortune blinded you so that you turn your back on your husband in his moment of need? Don’t forget all the families who sent their children to war. Bon shares the fate of all the men who sacrificed their youth on the front, who paid with their lives so that we could live in peace. In Bons loss there is a share of the pain of all our loved ones. We stand with him.” (Huong, 2005) This hero worship of Bon places him on a pedestal. Because of this Mien makes the decision to return to Bon. Hoan addresses more of the upper/lower class hierarchy, and when Mien leaves him for Bon, Hoan says “Would he understand that he was going to live with a woman from a world where he had no place….or did he believe he could win her back?”(Huong, 2005) By saying this Hoan is acknowledging that Mien is now a part of another class, an upper class that Hoan and her have become accustomed to.
The responsibilities of men and woman are very eminent within No Man’s Land. Many of these responsibilities incorporate traditional Confucianism. Other responsibilities are to the Vietnamese communist party. Duong Thu Huong puts a twist on these responsibilities within her character Mien. Mien’s responsibilities as a woman are portrayed through her duties as a Vietnamese wife and Confucius beliefs. According to Confucianism “When a young man comes the age of 20 as an adult, his father gives him advice; when a girl marries, her mother gives her advice, and accompanies her to the door with these cautionary words, “when you go to your new home, you must be respectful and circumspect. Do not disobey your husband.” It is the Way of women to take obedience as the norm.”(Jiang, 2009)
Traditionally within Vietnam according to the Confucius beliefs a woman is to stay faithful to her husband and her family. However, the author challenges the Confucius beliefs as Miens responsibility to her family is now complicated with the return of her first husband Bon the war vet who served the Vietnamese communist party. Mien is forced with a decision to either contradict the beliefs of Confucianism or turn her back on the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The role of Confucianism and the social roles within society are expressed through the men in No Man’s Land as well. Prior to his life with Mien, Hoan was previously married. Deceived into sleeping with a wealthy shop owner’s daughter, Hoan is forced by his parents to marry Kim Lien the shopkeeper’s daughter. Duong Thu Huong references a Confucius practice when Hoan is trying to imagine what his father must think “How is he going to face our family, our neighbors? Will he disown me in front of the altar to the ancestors, banish me?….Or will he just stare at me in silence?” (Huong, 2005)This statement conflicts with Confucius ideologies to have filial piety. “According to Confucian doctrine, there are three grades of filial piety: the lowest is to support ones’ parents, the second is not to bring humiliation to ones parents and ancestors, and the highest is to glorify them.”(Living Religions, 2005) Duong utilizes this idea through Hoan’s absolute disgust and resentment towards Kim Lien. Hoan leaves the village and runs away from Kim. By running away Hoan is trying not to dishonor his father and uphold his filial obligations.
Duong Thu Huong also utilizes Bon Miens first husband as a reference to Confucius beliefs and the social constraints of men within Vietnam. Bon during his time spent at war loses track of his platoon. Stranded without hope and starving he comes across a mute Laotian woman who offers him food and shelter within the village. Immediately taken in by the family Bon marries the woman and lives with her for years. However, unhappy with the life he is living and the constant flashbacks of his life with Mien, Bon leaves the village. He leaves behind his wife and possibly an unborn child. By doing so Bon is dishonoring Confucianism by placing himself before his family.
Sacrifice is a theme in many of Duong Thu Huongs Novels. Duong does a superb job in portraying the sacrifices that many face within Vietnam. These sacrifices include those for the Vietnamese Communist Party and sacrifices for family. The most evident sacrifice within No man’s land is that of Miens. She leaves behind a lavish life and her family, for a life of poverty with Bon. Mien continues to make sacrifices for Bon as later in the novel she invites Bon to come live with her and Hoan. In doing so she is sacrificing her traditional marriage with Hoan once again to care for Bon.
Bons sacrifice is one common within Vietnam. Bon left home at the age of 17 to join the military. In serving the Vietnamese Communist Party Bon sacrifices his mind, body, and his youth. During the years he spent as a soldier and away from home Bon grew into adulthood. He endured many of the travesties that countless young men faced during the War. The horrors of the war continue to haunt him, Duong Thu Huong describes in detail his survival during the bombing of hill #327. He continues to have flashbacks of the war which appear to be of a man suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder, although this is not discussed in the story. Bon also encountered Agent Orange during the war. Agent Orange was a chemical utilized by the Americans that is known to cause many forms of cancer and birth defects within children. Once Bon returns home he is weak, incapable of tending to his farm, and impotent. Duong Thu Huong describes her character of Bon as a direct reference to the lives led by many within Vietnam. Ms. Huong states “He is a metaphor for the Vietnamese. He represents a whole generation, our entire population, that went to war, that sacrificed and become impotent, both mentally and physically.” (NPR, 2005)
Mien’s sacrifice places her in a position to search for escapes. She cannot leave Bon as she will be humiliated Mien recollects on this thought “Do I love Bon to the point of stupidity?..No, I don’t. I came back here out of duty, one ordained by some ancient, unwritten law that, though it was never recorded anywhere, never laid down in black and white, has become THE law…And if I oppose this law, I’ll never live in peace, anywhere, even if I left this village.”(Huong, 2005) As she returns to live with Bon, Mien utilizes many forms of escape to clear her mind, and her body of her new life. Mien is constantly filling her time with all the responsibilities that she can find. Obsessed with cleanliness Mien utilizes the time spent on cleaning the household as an escape from spending any time with Bon. The time she does spend with Bon is at night when he makes his feeble attempts to have sex with her. Every night after Bon makes his advances Mien retreats to take a bath with the “Virgin Grass” that her husband Hoan had given her. “Virgin grass was used in purification rituals, and its perfume was reserved for those who had chosen celibacy, who renounced the crowds and their distractions for a life apart.”(Huong, 2005) By bathing in this virgin grass Mien is trying to wash away Bon, not just his sweat or odor, but even the thoughts of him. This is Miens escape a way to bring herself back to the life she had lived with Hoan.
Hoans escape is one of a broken man. His retreat to the city after Mien deserts him was how he coped with her loss. Hoan surrounds himself with work and prostitutes to escape this reality. However, in the end he could never truly escape the nostalgia of his life with Mien. “Despite his success, despite his ambition, he would never be happy here. Only one person could breathe life into this being they called happiness, and that was Mien. Mien and only Mien was the pillar of his life.”(Huong, 2005)
Food is another theme that is evident in many of Duong Thu Huongs novels. She utilizes the food to restore Bons health as a metaphor. He believes by getting healthy he will be able to impregnate his wife and she would be forced to love him. “The liver, marinated in juice and spices and then grilled, appealed not only to his famished nieces and nephews but also to Mien. But he stubbornly refused to share these dishes with anyone even if it meant that he appeared a selfish glutton. This was not food in the conventional sense, but weaponry that he would use to conquer his lost citadel.”(Huong, 2005) This metaphor of food is referencing Bons attempt to conquer his non-submissive wife.
Poverty is another theme that Duong Thu Huong illustrates through her writings. The life that Bon comes back to portrays that of many poor individuals within Vietnam. Readers are instantly thrown into a life of poverty when Mien describes the shack that she is forced to live in with Bons sister. Bon consistently borrows money from Mien and his friends to get by. His farm has wilted away to nothing and he struggles not only with his health but trying to bring his farm back to life in order to feed his family. He recollects to himself “But where will I find the money for her to buy rice? I can’t borrow from Xa forever. He’s not very rich and he has three young kids to raise. But aside from him, who can I turn to? The authorities? Their assistance is over. And their charity always came in small change anyway. I can still ask Dot for help. She’s kept Ta and her kids going for years. Or Binh. In any case, I’m going to need money to live. We cant get by just on rice and grilled sesame seeds. Even this salt-stewed chicken is enough for only two meals.”(No Mans Land, 2005) These thoughts that crossed Bons mind may have crossed the minds of many living in Vietnam struggling with famine and poverty.
Censorship played a large role within Vietnam during the war and the post war era. The Communist Party of Vietnam implemented and utilized censorship in order to suppress any pro-democratic movements and to maintain a pure image as the ruling party. These leaders instated agencies to edit and remove any contentious language that depicted the party in an undesirable manner. Agencies such as the ministry of culture focused on the social, economic, religious, and general concerns of those within the party and the people of Vietnam.
Despite all the catastrophes’ of the war creativity was not lost within Vietnam. Duong Thu Huong an author and political activist is a diamond in the rough. Duong Thu Huong was born 1947 in Thai Binh located in the Red River Delta Region of Vietnam. At the age of 9 she bore witness to the land reforms of 1953-1956. At 20 years old she studied at the Ministry of Cultures Art College. She joined a troupe as part of the women’s youth brigade during the Vietnam War. Her role was to sing and bring moral to the troupes on the front lines at the same time spreading military propaganda throughout the country. Duong returned to Hanoi in 1977. Encouraged by her friends Duong joined the communist party alongside the writers’ union. In 1981 her family life took a turn and she divorced her abusive husband. She was left to raise her child as a single mother. In 1988 Duong wrote about the land reforms which were a relevant part of her past in “Paradise of the Blind” one of her most famous books. Duong faced many forms of censorship after writing “Paradise of the Blind” in one case she says ”The party’s general secretary, Nguyen Van Linh, offered me a house of the kind reserved for ministers if I would remain silent,” she replied. ”I told him, ‘I fight for democracy; I place myself on the side of the people and would never agree to be like a minister.’ My principle is that you can lose everything, even your life, but never your honor.” (Riding, 2005) Her decision to deny the house shows her integrity as an activist for freedom of speech and unwillingness to surrender her ideals.
In 1991 she was arrested for allegedly selling state secrets to foreigners. Duong served a 7 month prison sentence and during this time she managed to get published “A Novel without a Name”. Duong Thu Huong’s arrest sparked interest across the globe ultimately leading to her release. In 1994 she traveled to France to receive an award giving to those works were banned Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. Outraged the Communist party declared Duong a traitor and cut ties with France. However, in 1995 Duong refused to accept a life of exile. Ms. Duong Thu Huong states “I stay here to be a thorn in their side because if there is no such thorn, they have too easy a time. My only weapon against this government is my utmost scorn, and I spit in their faces. It’s that simple.”(NPR, 2005) Since returning home Duong has written many books none of which have been published within Vietnam.
The Vietnamese struggled trying to make a decent living post-Vietnam war. Duong Thu Huong herself has personally lived through these hard times. She has made an effort within “No Man’s Land” to accurately portray the struggles faced by the Vietnamese. She has done so by addressing particular themes. Themes of classism, religion, sacrifice, escape, food, and poverty all represent the suffering of those living within Vietnam. The censorship of this Novel was done primarily because of the social references that Duong Thu Huong has made. Her efforts as an activist for freedom of speech have also played a major role in getting “No Man’s Land” and her other novels banned within Vietnam. The few political references that she make attack the integrity of the Vietnamese Communist Party. However, the literary worth alone within “No Man’s Land” is of high caliper and I personally feel that by censoring this book the censors within Vietnam are depriving the Vietnamese of great literature.
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